The Underlying Lessons of the Sudbury Culture

Jeff Collins and Vanessa Van Burek are Founders and Staff of the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Woodstock, NY.

As we sit in our school’s main lounge, trying to write about the underlying lessons of a Sudbury Education, we often find ourselves “off task.” We are watching the bustling activity around us… Jeff, a staff member, and Sonya, a 14-year-old student, are working on math problems in order to move her closer to her goal of becoming a vet. (She’s contacted Cornell University to find the best method of getting into their program.) Cody, age 11, and Madison, 15, are reading medicine cards for all who walk by. Eli, 5, and Kiran, 6, are comparing new Magic Cards and talking about the mysterious gum switcher – the spearmint and cinnamon gum from the School Store have seemingly switched bottles. The Judicial Committee members file into the JC room to start the daily session but Natasha, 15, one of our JC clerks, has to find a replacement for the 5- to 9-year old representative to the JC who is out sick. Success – Sophie, age 8, is filling in. Lisa, a staff member, and David, age 16, are discussing whether or not putting “spring water” on a bottled water label ensures you aren’t getting someone’s random tap water. A man drives up attempting to deliver food to the Zena Elementary School, a public school down the road. While only a few miles away, the Zena Elementary School couldn’t be more different than The Hudson Valley Sudbury School on Zena Road.

It struck us that we weren’t off task as our minds wandered. It makes perfect sense to explain our philosophy from the perspective of the students. Only through our students’ experiences are we truly able to give justice to the Sudbury education. To understand the Sudbury education you must first erase any preconceptions and conditioning you may have about education. A Sudbury education is very different any other type of education provided by either public schools or private schools. You have to be open to challenging your beliefs and trusting the fundamental principles of life.

Sudbury schools operate with no mandated or pre-determined curriculum. Students are responsible for every aspect of their education. This means that all day, every day students are free to decide how to spend their time and, in turn, the directions that their education and lives take. One of our parents termed this “Student Motivated Learning.” Sudbury education acknowledges that people learn best when the motivation comes from within instead of from an external source, be it a parent, teacher or national curriculum.

Sudbury schools are run by a participatory democracy. Each student and each staff has an equal representation and vote in the weekly School Meeting. This meeting makes all of the day-to-day decisions necessary to run the school; it is chaired by a student and is run similar to a town hall meeting. There is no principal, no higher authority, and no veto power.

Given that there is no mandated curriculum, it is hard to pinpoint what each student learns. They learn whatever they consider important enough to learn – reading, writing and basic math, but equally important, they might learn painting, physics, skateboarding, sewing, cooking, carpentry, Chinese – the list is infinite. Students learn important lessons just by being a member of the culture of a Sudbury school. John Taylor Gatto, who was twice named NYS teacher of the year, wrote a scathing rebuke of the public school system’s form of compulsory education in his essay “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher.” Mr. Gatto describes the underlying or hidden lessons taught by the culture of compulsory education – lessons such as “stay in the class where you belong,” “you can only learn through an outside agent,” “you are subject to a chain of command,” “your self-respect should depend on an observer’s measure of your worth,” and “you are always under surveillance.” The “hidden” lessons are those that aren’t explicitly taught – no one stands up in front of the students and says, “you are subject to a chain of command.” The lessons are simply part of the culture, and to be successful in the culture the students have to conform to the cultural rules. Those students who don’t conform are labeled “trouble makers,” or even given a medical diagnosis of ADHD and prescribed medicine to numb them enough that they won’t disrupt the culture.

A Sudbury school also has lessons that are taught by its culture, however these are very different lessons than those taught by a compulsory educational culture. As we struggled to write this, we asked some of our students “what is it like to be a student in a Sudbury school?” Here are their responses:

Monty, age 8, who was in the kitchen in an intense version of his block men game said: “When my mom sent me to school in California, I didn’t like it so much. I was a prisoner. They wouldn’t let me free. I always had to do math, which wasn’t fun for me. There wasn’t any space to do things I wanted to do. Until I got to this school and it is great. Yes, good times.” Katya, age 7, who was restricted to the art room all day for being annoying, said “You don’t have people telling you how to live your life, you get to LIVE YOUR LIFE.”

Monty and Katya have flourished in the freedom that is fundamental to the Sudbury culture. Students are not told where they have to be, what they have to do, who they have to listen to or what they have to learn. Each student pursues his or her own independent path. Because no two people are exactly alike, no two students take the same path of learning. Some students spend their entire energy on music, some on art, some on math or physics. More important than anything that they choose to do with that freedom is that they have the freedom. The most obvious lessons underlying freedom are independence and trust. By allowing our students the freedom to decide what to do, we communicate to them that they are independent beings with independent needs, goals, desires. We are also saying to them that we trust them to exercise this freedom. The underlying lessons will always be more important than how or whether they learned the quadratic equation. This freedom, therefore, is guarded with the utmost respect.

The brilliance of Sudbury schools is that responsibility is on an equal footing with freedom. Eli, age 5, who was playing Magic Cards with an older student said “The goodest thing about this school is you learn not to do bad things, like not to litter.” Responsibility and freedom intersect in the Judicial Committee. This body consists of 5 students and a staff member, with each age group represented. They have the responsibility of assuring that the School Meeting’s laws and policies are followed. This body resolves issues through investigation, charges, and sentences. There are thorough reports, motions, and pleas. Students have responsibility to this body through membership, testimony, and honesty.

The underlying message of holding people responsible is that the culture believes they are capable – capable of taking care of themselves, of deciding their path, capable of being an integral and active part of a larger community and helping to shape that community. Sudbury schools have very high expectations of their students. It is not an easy place to be. There is room to make mistakes but one must take responsibility for their choices. Students are held responsible for every aspect of their education, behavior, their interactions, and the community. They have freedom to do as they choose but also the responsibility to not impinge on the freedom of others.

With this responsibility comes respect that is unmeasured. With this freedom comes a natural sense of joy, friendship, conversation, and life.

Alexei, age 16, said “When you tell a kid they can do anything, but we’re trusting you to do the right thing, they – especially the younger kids – take it to heart. They like to push the boundaries. If there’s nothing to push against, they’ll settle down and do work.” But the work that Alexei is referring to doesn’t look like work. Eli, age 5, said “In other schools you have to work all day, here you get to play all day.” By play, he doesn’t mean “recess.” Recess is defined as “a suspension of business”. Sudbury schools do not consider play to be a suspension of business; they consider it part of the “business” of the school. The underlying lesson in dividing a student’s time between “learning” and “recess” is that learning is not fun and recess is fun, that play is not important but learning is important. Students at Sudbury schools don’t differentiate between work and play, learning and fun. They play anything and everything with passion and intensity. They work at play like musicians work at music, like doctors work at medicine, and they play at work like writers play with language and carpenters play with wood.

Students and staff play constantly and they play together. Just as the lines blur between work and play, the lines of age become non-existent. Age mixing is the Sudbury secret weapon. There is no separation or grouping by age, but instead there is a community of people with different skills and different interests. Fifteen-year-olds read to six-year-olds and seven-year-olds give skateboarding tips to sixteen-year-olds. The competition created by putting all kids of the same age together, only to compare themselves against one other, is transformed to friends helping each other move through life in a natural and supportive way.

Staff’s role at a Sudbury school is multi-faceted: they complete the age continuum, they model responsible behavior, and they handle the administrative work of running the school. Staff members are friends and playmates, sounding boards, counselors, parental figures, and most importantly, they hold the space that allows for freedom, trust and responsibility to flourish in each and every student.

Students who come through a Sudbury education are independent. They are responsible for themselves and responsible for their community. They are passionate and articulate. Through their independence they know what they want to do with their lives and are focused on accomplishing their goals. Through the responsibility and trust given to them they are self confident and able to accomplish those goals. When a student applies to college, for a job, or even a relationship and shows this level of independence, responsibility and self-confidence, they have an outstanding chance of acceptance, a chance above those who are just taking the next step deemed important by society.

At a gathering last week, the parent of a potential student asked us “how do you know that students flourish at a Sudbury School?” We know it without assessments, or grades, without evaluations or testing. We know it because we see it every day. We see it in the 7-year-old girl who used to call her parents every hour on the hour and now only calls them once a day. We see it in the 6-year-old boy who never wanted to be separated from his mother and who now runs out of the car to come into the school and doesn’t want to leave at the end of the day. We see it in the teenagers who are taking responsibility in the community by running for clerkships and are eager to be role models for the younger students. We see it in comments like “I look forward to the weeks and not the weekends” or “I can sing out loudly, badly and not feel embarrassed,” and “so, if it snows and only one staff member can get to school, do we still have to have a snow day?” We see it in the 11-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy who volunteered to be on the suspension committee of a 12 year old, because they, too, have had anger management issues.

We see it in the writing of two of our teenagers the first being Sonya, age 14, who has waited two years to experience our solid environment in which to pick her bouquet:

School is a field of flowers. In public school you are in that field being told which flowers are best to pick. There are the red math flowers and the blue science flowers. Sometimes you will be told to pick the green English’s or the purple Social Studies. Your teacher will walk with you and hold your hand showing you how to pick the flowers – what to do once you have it in your hand. They show you how to place it carefully in your bouquet of knowledge so it doesn’t fall out.

At Sudbury you are put in a field with the flowers everywhere. You aren’t told what to pick and when to pick it. You are given the open field to crawl around in. When you look and find the prettiest flower you might stop and look at it carefully. Noticing the veins that trickle down the sides. The petals open up for you. While you look at it you see the inside of it colored yellow, red, and orange. Carefully so that you don’t break the stalk, you pull it lightly from the ground and let it roll on your fingertips, slowly one way then the other. Then just as soon as you have looked at it, you know everything there is to know, you add it to your pile of flowers that you have in your hand. Some of the kids in the field have a lot of the red math flowers. Other kids have a lot of green English’s. But in the end every one has a beautiful bouquet to call theirs.

And, we see it in Natasha, a 15 year old who commutes weekly from New Jersey to be in our school.

Whenever someone asks me how I like my new school I always respond: “I love it! It’s absolutely awesome!” because it’s the only way I could come close to expressing my overwhelming happiness at HVSS. Hudson Valley Sudbury School has essentially been the key to the door that has opened up into a whole new way of living. I can say, without hesitation, that this has been one of the most important and positive decisions I have ever made in my life, and there is no way I would regret it. I really can’t say enough about the difference a Sudbury education has made in my life. This past weekend I was at a party of my father’s where there were many members of my family and family friends that I haven’t seen for months. When they saw the 360-degree turnaround in my attitude they were astounded. I was the cheeriest and happiest they had every seen me, since I was a child. My attitude this weekend is no exception – I’m always in a positive mood. I’m no longer pessimistic, but rather optimistic and greet the world with interest, curiosity, happiness and peace.

Every day I grow more and more as an independent person and less and less of a programmed machine. Within the last two months I have more of a sense of what I would like to do in my adult life than I have had in the last 15 years. For the first time that I can remember, I have goals and motivation, too. My motivation comes from my desire to learn what I have interest in – namely politics, activism, law, foreign languages, history, philosophy, art and literature. Organizational, communication, and leadership skills are all skills that I am learning and refining in the environment that Sudbury School has provided me. HVSS is like a loving, democratic community of amazing and diverse people. It’s a place where anyone can and usually is your friend – both staff and other children half (or twice) your age. This is a place where there is truly liberty and justice for all!

Sudbury schools are completely democratic – demonstrated in the workings of the Judicial Committee and School Meeting. Everyone is an equal – no exceptions. I know this school isn’t for everyone, but I think it could be for most people if they were really willing to give it a try and were open to this completely different way of learning, they would be amazed and flourish in this environment. Never be afraid of change – you could travel down.

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The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.